A mobile watchtower, lifted into the air by a crane, surveys Khan Yunis day and night. An ambulance from the city waits behind a nearby concrete building day after day; it waits so that the next child shot for playing too close to the wall can make it to the local hospital before dying. The wall is a vast, menacing construction stretching down the coast as far as you can see, separating Khan Yunis from the Gush Katif settlement block in the Gaza Strip. Israeli soldiers sit poised with machine guns in the cylindrical bunker at the northern edge of the wall overlooking the ruins they’ve made of the Khan Yunis refugee camp.
Over there to the south and west, in the Jewish settlements, no one worries about water shortages or electricity outages. Families don’t live in corrugated iron shacks unrecognizable as homes from the outside until someone points out what is supposed to be a door; until you see ragged clothing hanging up to dry above a parched piece of earth beside the shack. Parents in the settlements aren’t afraid that their children will be murdered for absent-mindedly playing too close to a wall. Their panorama is the buoyant, sparkling Mediterranean lapping the white sands outside their windows; an occupied view: for settlers only.
There are children from the refugee camp playing in the shell of a building not far from the wall. A small Gaza girl eyed me with a dark face, suspicious but curious, the last time I walked this area. When I asked to take her picture she simply stood still with the same brooding expression on her face as I clicked the camera. A year later and here she is playing among the ruins; taller and longer haired but with the same knowing look. When she sees me she stops and we both flash a quick smile of recognition. She’s not dead, I think. One cannot help but wonder this about those who go on living here.
And now I wonder again about her and her playmates; about the men and women mulling about in the hot streets of the market. I wonder about the boy who was shot in the arm by a soldier in the mobile watchtower -target practice—carried away by the ever-present ambulance just after I arrived to gape incredulously at the wall. I wonder about the boy who draped a Palestinian flag over his shoulders like a cape after the funeral of two others killed in the night by a tank. He ran past us to his home, a white apartment building with bullet holes and tank-blasted craters in the concrete decorating its sorry facade. Can it really be this bad? Can you expect people to keep listening to the morbid descriptions of life here without questioning your accuracy? Perhaps not, and yet the most striking feature of all is that it is so much worse than these paltry words can express.
I’ve awoken to a most disturbing email message from a friend. “Massacre in Gaza” the subject heading reads. “Things grew very bad tonight in Khan Yunis. After an incursion into the refugee camp two people were killed and ten injured. A tank then stopped suddenly in the road and the Israelis started behaving in a crazy way, firing everywhere. A helicopter fired a rocket killing eight more people and wounding about 100. Later we heard that they were shelling the Nasser hospital in Khan Yunis. Things are going so much to the worse here…”
It’s déjà vu in the Gaza Strip: more incursions, more firing, more dead, more dazed children, more grieving relatives, more wreckage in the wasteland of the Strip. I still tense up at the sound of airplanes flying overhead because of my nights spent in Rafah and Gaza City. Five months of listening to fighter jets, helicopter gunships, tank firing, machine gun fire, grenades—and the slightest “bang” now makes me jump. What are we turning a population of full-time inhabitants of this hell into?
My friend Ghada writes to me the next day, “The attack in Khan-Yunis was more than horrible. I went numb when I heard of it. The only thing I can say is ‘what can we do?’ We pray God to stop the Israeli madness soon.”
The signs aren’t looking good. The specter of war in the region is looming. Talk of “transfer”, of the forced expulsion of the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, is gaining in popularity not only in Israel but also in pro-Israel circles in the United States. Members of Congress and of the Bush administration are echoing the most outspoken advocates of this policy in Israel, people like Effi Eitam-in charge of Israel’s settlements programs and an outspoken advocate of expulsion—or General Eitan Ben Elyahu, former head of the Israeli Air Force who recently announced that “eventually we will have to thin out the number of Palestinians living in the territories.” No one protested.
Under cover of war, the Gaza girl with the dark eyes and her playmates, the bereaved family members of the recent massacre, the children at the kindergarten near the Mezan Center for Human Rights office, my former co-workers themselves -Ghada with her beautiful English and hopes to study abroad, and Mais with her beaming ‘good-mornings’, and Anwar, the maintenance man, and the diligent Ramiz, Adnan, and Hazem; and the owners of the Matooq restaurant who welcomed me every time I came in for lunch, and the storekeepers and the taxi-drivers, the beggar-children and the women shopping for food-they’re all supposed to disappear, like chemical-treated stains.
The juggernaut advances and there is blood on our hands. The oranges and olives will witness the last of the just-the people I met who told me they would never leave Palestine. Will their deaths move us to open our eyes?